Christina Stead’s third novel, ‘House of All Nations’ reads like Balzac on steroids. When Stead, a big fan of the French super-realist, left Australia to work in trade and banking houses in London and Paris in the early 1930s, she found that all the characters she had to deal and socialise with could have stepped straight from the pages of ‘La Comédie humaine’. Apparently bankers and businessmen and their various vacuous hangers-on were just as ruthless, amoral, grasping, delusional, energetic, greedy, avaricious, and toadying social climbers in the 1930s as in the 1830s. Well, well. Suffice it to say that these characters also seem surprisingly recognisable to contemporary readers; with minimum tweaking, this novel could be set in the 1987, 2008, pick your period of financial rapacity and instability: ‘plus ça change’ as Balzac might have remarked.
So Stead was inspired to write this far too long but still compulsively readable picaresque describing the rise and fall of the boutique bank, ‘Bertillon Frères’, commandeered and powered by the mercurial charismatic Jules Bertillon. The House of All Nations, referred to only a couple of times in the novel, is a Parisian brothel, so you can see where Stead is coming from with this. However, here is one of those unusual examples in literature where a mismatch between intention and achievement actually results in a better work. Stead was a communist and what is obviously meant to be a savage takedown of capitalism’s immoral gaudy excesses, and she does make her points, winds up being a thoroughly entertaining comedic romp.
In these pages Stead is ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’ as Blake said of Milton’s depiction of Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’, or maybe she does know it, anyway, whether or not, Jules, the in-house devil here, drives the whole show with his charisma and energy, the typical speculator’s eternal optimism. He is cast as the negative principle, the rotten core of a rotten system, but we’re charmed and fascinated by him as is everyone else in the novel, and so very clearly is Stead. Blake thought Milton wrote ‘in fetters’ but all chains are burst here as Jules, our animating spirit, effortlessly bends the whirling world of pre-war plutocratic Paris to his various extravagant whims.
Although a long book, 800 odd pages, the texture is curiously light, insubstantial, like its leading man; Jules is a will-of-the-wisp and despite the occasional anti-capitalist diatribe (not his), he stops the show from getting too stodgy. His Sancho Panza, Michel Alphendéry, who basically runs the bank for him, efficient servant of his desires and excesses, is based on Stead’s lover-soon-to-be-husband, another William Blake (anglicised from Wilhelm Blech) and is also a communist. A Marxist banker, how about that? Almost all the characters are men, and there are a lot of them, although there is no problem following it all. None of them have much depth, but each rings true, you know them, you’ve met them, like in any successful picaresque.
Another factor that keeps things skipping along, aside from Jules, is that it is largely a book of conversations. Talk, talk, talk, that’s all these bankers ever seem to do, and so we have the same frenetic energy that you find in Dickens or Dostoevsky where various obsessives grab you by your lapel and hold their faces that bit too close but still you’re mesmerised and even convinced by their schemes until they finally release you and you realise what madmen they really are.
Yes, Jules fiddles while Europe burns, well not quite yet, but although above I mention the ‘timelessness’ of the cast, one of the fascinations of this novel is Stead’s perceptive rendering of the contemporary political and social scene. We know what’s going to happen, she doesn’t, but the coming cataclysm is well and truly foreshadowed, all the instability, shifting allegiances, anti-Semitism. Jules knows he is dancing on the edge of a volcano, although it’s not capitalism that’s going to suck everything into a black hole, but forces far more sinister. Hitler often crops up in conversations―no-one seems to quite know what he is about―as does the nascent (doomed) Spanish republic and all the various communist and workers’ insurgences, England dropping the gold standard, Mussolini in Africa, the Depression in America etc. A real snapshot.
Can I recommend this? Well you need to have time on your hands, but with the present pandemic lockdown (I’ve lost my job), it could be the go: not too heavy, not too light. Possibly best read with one of those low-alcohol beverages of the period, a long Pimm’s say, with mint and chopped fruit. Although Stead would go on to write a truly great novel after this, her wild and furious ‘The Man who loved Children’, still there are plenty of brilliant literary flashes here. So, I’ve given you my snapshot, and I’ll leave it to you.